J Sakai on Kitson’s counterinsurgency techniques

This is an exerpt from a talk given by j sakai on the Basic Politics of Movement Security, discussing how good security in revolutionary movements stems from good politics.

The following is a section from where Sakai discusses Brit General Frank Kitson, a leading counterinsurgent who helped to crush revolutions in Kenya and Malaya and was also a part of the Brit War Machine Ireland.

The full talk transcript can be found here:

You were mentioning how Czarist police had this division and more political policing has this division between “line them up and shoot them all” and something much more nuanced. I don’t know if you have heard of Frank Kitson?  

The Brigadier General, the British General, he wrote the manual on counterinsurgency based on Malaysia and Northern Ireland. I’ve taken it based on what i’ve read as the default basis that anglo-american policing is based on.  He talks about three stages, which combines both.

So the first stage is when movements just exist, and what they should do is just find out everything about them, which reinforces what you were saying about how they want to have all the information.

The second stage is when those movements become more disruptive and the third is when they become revolutionary. The point is: When they become revolutionary you have all the names, you know who to kill. But in the meantime you should be more subtle about it.  In Quebec for example, the second stage was during the October Crisis, when they had all these names of people to arrest, or who they thought they should arrest.

The 3rd stage was seen in Chile in the Pinochet Coup or after the Suharto Coup when they literally killed hundreds and thousands and millions of people, so I’m wondering whether we should posit these things as opposites or whether they can actually coexist, knowingly coexist as political policing.   

To start, there’s several questions wrapped around each other here. One is whether the classic tension has been overcome between the “let’s just round ’em up, shoot them and imprison them” school of policing versus the more strategic police approach of manipulating and trying to permanently manage dissent? 

Have the two been blended by innovations like Kitson’s counter-insurgency plan into one smoothly integrated club?  The quick answer is no. One big reason that the old-school tendency of simply attacking dissent with raw often illegal state violence never dies is simple: that’s what many police and military innately want to do,what they love doing!  Same with the ruling class.

This is their subculture, their default setting, which they revert to at every opportunity. These opposing state security tendencies may appear in public relations as a harmonious strategy, but in reality are always in inner conflict pushing to dominate one over the other.  

This is the real world not the theory world. Like, in my neighborhood last holidays, between Christmas and New Years, the police did a coordinated series of over 20 drug raids to remind all the Mexican immigrants and poor New Afrikan families that Santa Claus was a white man with a club ruling them.  “Happy New Year!”  

First we heard the rapid footsteps of big guys racing upstairs. Then the ritual shout of “Police! Open up!” followed a second later by a big smash as they broke into the next door apartment.  It was the “B team. Not the SWAT dudes with all black combat garb, military helmets and assault rifles. But the tactical intervention squad, a half-dozen tall, young white boys in dark blue tactical police coveralls and shotguns and pistols. 

Then we heard the thud after thud as they charged inside and knocked down to the floor and cuffed everyone in the apartment. This all took only seconds. All i could think of that moment, was to admire how disciplined their little daughter was, how she didn’t cry or scream even though she must have been terrified. 

Then an hour of capitalist fun overturning and smashing open all the furniture and cabinets searching for something illegal. Finally, after not finding anything except the big illegal thing – poverty – the euro-settler tactical team uncuffed the undocumented Mexican family and just left like Batman, running downstairs for their squad cars laughing and shouting at each other happily, still on an adrenaline high.

Give this everyday violence up, you gotta be kidding?   They live for this shit.

During the 1980s, some left writers in the US began pointing to Kitson as a source of important warnings. This was mostly because small groups there and then such as the Revolutionary Armed Task Force and the black liberation army coordinating committee were pursuing urban guerrilla activity in a still undeveloped way. 

Comrades needed to see what world-class capitalist anti-guerrilla strategy and tactics looked like. In particular, Kitson’s heavy reliance on the tactic of pseudo-gangs or counter gangs rang warning bells in our minds back then. To best check out that earlier discussion, you can read the paper “Pseudo Gangs” in the June 1983 issue of the anonymous left journal “S1” on the kersplebedeb website. 

But, no, Gen. Kitson’s writings don’t represent the latest shape of modern political policing. He rose up through the commissioned ranks through three British imperial counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1950-60S in Kenya, Malaya and Northern Ireland. His campaigns are important as part of capitalist warfare in the era of the old Western colonial empires. 

But they have been superseded by newer strategy in this neo-colonial world.  It is true that he helped draw the tactic of pseudo-gangs or counter-gangs out of the bloody closet of Britain’s Special Branch cops, who had used it way way back in the Palestine colony days against both Arab and Jewish underground organizations (not that it did them much good). 

That is, Kitson was relying on a specific political police tool that went back all the way to the founding fathers, i.e.the Czarist Okhrana who had used it. But like today’s CIA drone warfare this was and is only a tactic used in specific situations not an overall strategy. 

A pseudo-gang or counter-gang, incidentally, is when the political police form an imitation underground revolutionary cell or band; usually using some former guerrillas or rebels they have captured and convinced to “flip” and work for them. In order to infiltrate and often not simply to do arrests but to misdirect the whole insurgency.

This goes beyond getting a few more comrades arrested. This type of tactic particularly extended into public mass movements, can have strategic impact. 

Even stalling and then derailing struggles. For instance, when particularly counter-productive left cults get artificially energized with hard-working agents and a tankful of government cash. They can appear to be a very successful “vanguard” that absorbs more and more new activists into a political crash and burn. 

Gen. Kitson neither developed nor led the counter-gangs that he became so famous for after “Mau Mau” in the 1950s; that was all done quietly by the British empire’s police Special Branch. 

But Kitson saw the opportunity to grab all the public credit and get famous for work the army didn’t even do. Incidentally, the Special Branch officer who developed and personally commanded the counter-gangs in Kenya was expelled in the 1960s after Kenyan Independence.  Of course, he ended up spending 20 profitable years running the feared secret police for the royal family of Bahrain. 

Also, remember what the most basic thing is we learned about capitalism’s “experts” on repression?  That they are always lying to us.

Like, just a few years ago, the public was told how US Gen. Petraeus had supposedly brilliantly led the American occupation to victory in Iraq over the terrorists, right? Mostly BS in reality.  

Kitson is just the previous NATO generation’s Petraeus. What Kitson did is nothing like what he claimed in print. Gen. Kitsons work was part of the warfare of the previous colonial era of the 1930s-1950s, and is not directly transferable to today’s more complex neo-colonial period ( what capitalism calls “Globalization” and academics call “neo-liberalism” ).

His writings are part of modern total warfare in and against the colonial periphery, not so much policing inside the imperialist metropolis.  Although Kitson himself didn’t agree, of course.

In his once-classified paper for the Imperial General Staff, Low-Intensity Operations, Kitson rashly outlined how their army units should be spread out to be a secret part of all British local governing down to the village level, using pseudo-gangs to crush things like trade union strikes, ethnic minority protest campaigns and other social “problems”.

He even rashly revealed that pseudo-gangs were then being used in the US empire against New Afrikan militants. That was all supposed to be secret. The resulting leaks and liberal scandal and public outrage put the ever-ambitious Gen. Kitson back in his cushy place. 

Kitson’s abstract pronouncements about neat stages of intelligence-gathering and deployment of dead white men’s tricks like pseudo-gangs, are nothing like his own dirty military reality. 

Intelligence-gathering doesn’t quietly precede repression as its own stage of well-behaved activity. Rather it itself is the product of constant intervention and repression in people’s lives.

In order for his beloved pseudo-gangs to work in Kenya (the first and only war where they became the primary combat tactic), two much larger weapons had to be rumbled out of the garage and put into play.  That was what in today’s CIA terminology were “population regroupment” and “ enhanced interrogation” programs.

Out of the l.5 million Kikuyus alive in Kenya then, fully 1 million were uprooted from their traditional villages at rifle point and forced to move into new locations chosen for them, into improvised guarded settlements. Where their movements were restricted and their access to food kept at starvation levels so that no supplying of the rural guerrillas could take place.  Massive interrogation activities went on constantly, particularly of the over 77,000 Kikuyu arrested or captured as“ Mau Mau” and held separately in prison camps at their height. 

These British interrogations were based on mass executions as coercion and mass torturing and mutilations such as castration.   Rape was such an ordinary activity that it wasn’t even thought of as part of torture, but rather as a “perk” that the “civilized” British had granted their Afrikan mercenary troops and themselves to do at will. 

Robbing families of their scant money and possessions, extortion, torturing to death, killing to settle personal scores and spontaneous killing for the enjoyment of it, were common British military activities against the unarmed civilian population. 

It reached scandalous proportions even by European colonial standards ( which is a statement by itself ), and Kenya’s British police commissioner Arthur Young resigned rather than be further implicated. 

In 2013, after a long grassroots campaign that went mostly unreported here, some 1500 Kikuyu torture interrogation survivors received official letters of apology from the Crown, as well as promises of small cash reparations. But most of the many thousands of torture victims were long dead. 

Officially the British Empire claimed 11,000 “Mau Mau” deaths by their forces in the 1952-1956 Emergency”, but actually the daily killing was so widespread and constant that no real body count was kept. Figures in the many tens of thousands are heard. 

Now, can you imagine the capitalist state being able to get away with or even desiring such a disruptive bloodbath in Manhattan’s Upper West Side or at Montreal’s Concordia University? If what happens here was proportionate to what Kitson and company did in the Kikuyu uprising, we would be talking about forcibly moving millions of euro-settlers to tent cities in barren areas, behind barbed wire and under armed guards, torturing hundreds of thousands of young white women and men in an uncontrollable bloodbath. 

Even done on a much lesser scale it would be a big systemic shock. That’s what Kitson’s actual strategy would mean if applied to the privileged metropolitan population of empire and its often spirited butfrustrated left. To say that this would be hugely counter-productive as a way of coping with the actually existing left here is a big understatement. 

Which is why the more experienced and practical levels of state power gently spanked Gen. Kitson and reminded him to follow orders and confine his insane homicidal schemes to indigenous and neo-colonial societies, to the Bantustan, to the ghetto and the rez and the barrio.  Not to dream of putting settler anti-nuke committees into concentration camps or gleefully maiming white trade union dissenters. Unnecessary overkill and rocking their whole boat were out, to say the least.

And the other one was about bad politics.  So bad politics is sexist, macho behavior, but it strikes me that in 2013, the political police know that and practice feminist anti-oppressive kinds of behaviour.

In a really superficial way, that movie Zero Dark Thirty which is highlighting female CIA agents who were essentially responsible for finding out where Bin Laden was, using techniques that were more using the mind rather than macho torture or what have you. 

There are examples of infiltration where it is not the Brandon Darby type macho person but rather a more subtle, listening and nurturing type person who gets a lot of information by being a good stereotypical feminist or what have you. 

So i’m wondering whether we have to modify our idea of what bad politics is because political police knows that well enough and knows that that macho person will be more targeted. 

My 3rd point is: I find that the fear of the police knowing everything debilitates people from being active and the statement that you made that every revolutionary has a file on them is there more of a nuance to that?  In terms of if you’re politically active, if you’re publicly active, if you’ve done certain things maybe? 

It strikes me as sometimes the fear of what the state can do debilitates people from being active rather than what they’re actually doing and certainly there are plenty of examples of infiltration and stories we can share of their overwhelming power, but there are also examples of people being able to overcome that despite their resources.  

Those are 3 really big things I wanted to get it all out and have you respond to.   

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